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William Byrd: Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

John Harley, Aldershot, England: Scolar Press; and Brookfield, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1997.8 pls. + xvi + 480 pp. $76.95. ISBN: 1-85928-165-6.

The life and works of English composer William Byrd (1540-1623) have received steady attention from musicians and scholars since the 1920s, in spite of rapid and often drastic changes in editorial methods, performance practices, and current fashion in musicology and music theory. Even across the centuries, Byrd's remains one of the most powerfully expressive musical voices of the later Renaissance; his style is meticulous, frequently full of unexpected gesture, and often difficult to characterize. Like the man himself, who brought the most conservative compositional techniques of his era to new heights and remained for the most part uninfluenced by the more daring artistic trends as the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque, Byrd scholarship has generally displayed the most careful and exacting elements of traditional musicology in the face of disciplinary change. John Harley's book is no exception. Its painstaking archival research and the author's familiarity with manuscript material across many fields will not only make this the definitive Byrd reference for many years to come, but serves as a model for scholars in all fields of Renaissance historical investigation. However, the work's greatest strength is also its weakness. For Harley's great attention to accuracy of documentary evidence and its full implications also leads to a narrative style that is at times difficult to follow, and to conclusions that are not always easy to pick out of lists of possible speculations past and present. He is also clearly more comfortable and familiar with secondary musical literature than with the literary and historical works equally necessary to a thorough biography of Byrd. His very careful citations and large bibliography, clearly designed to facilitate future scholarship as well as assist the curious reader, omit several very important and highly relevant works on religion, poetics, and early Tudor musical theater. However, they do provide readers unfamiliar with the basics of Elizabethan and Jacobean music with access to important tools, and recall for all readers many important early twentieth century compilations of sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century English documents.

Harley's book is divided into two main sections, the first concerning Byrd's life and the second his works. The biographical account is undoubtedly the most important part of the study, for it introduces much vital information for the first time. Here, the year of Byrd's birth is firmly established as 1540, not three years later as previously believed. In spite of many gaps that still remain, we now know that Byrd was a native Londoner, that he and his brothers all received professional musical training in youth, and that their father may have been involved in woodworking and perhaps the crafting of musical instruments. One of his sons also received praise for musical skill during his brief life. It cannot be shown that Byrd travelled widely or far during his lifetime, though it is tempting think that he may have made a pilgrimage to Rome following the death of his most musical son. Through careful re-examination of documentary evidence and more recent scholarly speculation that has been more widely accepted than convincing, Harley also questions the usual assumption that Byrd married twice.

Most biographies of Byrd emphasize the composer's lengthy involvement in legal wranglings over property, and his continued commitment to Catholicism at great personal cost during a period of intense religious instability in England. Harley's study is no exception. His summaries and quotations from documents reveal a shrewd individual with an excellent sense of how to secure and maintain a solid social position during an era of rapid mobility within the growing middle classes, and who developed a canny knack for keeping a powerful network of patrons which enabled him to express ideas and beliefs that might have proven fatal from the pens of others.

The portion concerning Byrd's music is somewhat less original than the biography, to which its contents remain closely linked. It is also clearer and more readable. Although musicologists, music theorists, and performers will find interesting and useful information throughout this section, particularly in the form of tables outlining plans and structures of several works, non-music scholars will find this material quite accessible.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Austern, Linda Phyllis
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1999
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